A Ride and a Realization — How I Dealt with Ageism
The following is adapted from I’m Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in The Workplace by Patti Temple Rocks
About a year before I decided to write my book, I’m Not Done, I took a chance on the glowing recommendation of a friend and tried out a spin class at SoulCycle. She promised it would be as good for my soul as it was for my body. It wasn’t something I had ever seen myself doing, but my knees had long since kept me away from running, and being out of shape was too depressing, so I decided to give it a go.
Five minutes in, I decided that my friend was crazy. I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, I couldn’t figure out how to seat my shoes properly in the pedals, I couldn’t understand the lingo being thrown around, and I was the oldest person in the room by far. If there were inspirational and soul-nurturing messages being voiced, I was either too tired or too confused to hear them.
I came back the next morning, though, and continued throwing myself into the 5:45 am class day after day. Something about that intimidating, overwhelming, loud, fast, work-focused environment made me feel a spark that felt downright awesome.
Pretty soon, I was able to put a name to that spark: I felt empowered.
And empowered was something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I’m someone who has always, throughout my life, plunged headfirst into challenge, and gone confidently in the direction of my dreams. I was the Managing Director of one of Chicago’s biggest communications agencies. I worked on blue chip accounts. I was frequently asked to speak or serve on panels for industry events, and my advice and counsel were sought after by my staff and colleagues. I sit on the Board of Directors for a NASDAQ company. So why was I feeling like I had gotten to a place where I was no longer in control — where I felt sidelined, marginalized, and dismissed?
Feeling the Effects of Age(ism)
At work, I had recently been moved out of the influential, fulfilling role in which I was performing well and valued by my staff, and into what the business world might call an “independent contributor” role. But what it felt like to me was a role without much impact or influence. During a discussion I had with my boss about the situation, I made it clear that I wasn’t happy with the new role, which didn’t feel like a growth opportunity — or even a full-time position — to me.
After some back and forth, he asked, “Well, how much longer do you really want to work, anyway?” Ouch. I wasn’t expecting that one, and boy did it sting.
That told me everything I needed to know about how I could hope to be perceived. After an incredibly successful and intense four-decade career, it had happened: I felt I had been devalued, right when I least expected it — when I believed I was at the very height of my skill and knowledge. And frankly, from the last company I ever expected it from. I truly loved that company, and had invested into it much more than my time — I’d invested my heart.
Do I think my boss, and my company, were being intentionally ageist? Honestly, no. That’s my point, though: ageism isn’t always intentional. My experience underscored just how hurtful, intentional or not, ageism can be. But much of the time, ageism is completely unintentional, and the result of systemic, unexamined, deep-seated beliefs that engender ageist behavior.
Throughout my career, when I looked around at the agency business, I could count on one hand the number of people who were my age, or even over the age of 50. Advertising and PR is not an industry that is friendly to older people; it’s intensely youth-driven (some might even say youth-obsessed). I’d known this all along, because after all, I was an incredibly successful part of that industry. So in many ways, it didn’t come as a surprise when, as an over-50 worker, I was the odd person out.
It took stepping into that SoulCycle studio every day to realize what I was no longer getting from my work, and how much I needed to make a change. When I sat on the bike, I didn’t feel like the oldest person in the room. In fact, they have a sign that particularly inspired me. It looked exactly like the kind of sign you’d see in front of a roller coaster: “To ride at SoulCycle, you must be 4’11” and 12 years old.”
So essentially, the only requirements were that my feet reached the pedals and that I worked my ass off — and hard work has always come easily to me, so I excelled. At the same time, it highlighted that in my current role, that exhilarating feeling of knowing I was still “in it” — that I was making a meaningful difference — wasn’t something I had felt in a while, or likely would feel again anytime soon. I was feeling anything but “in it” at work and had been feeling that way for a while. I hadn’t realized how much it was affecting me emotionally, deep down, until I felt what it was to be empowered again.
I was able to make the choice that was right for me, and step away from the workplace that was marginalizing me. However, not everyone has that choice. Ageism is insidious, because not only does it rob people of the right to choose when they’re ready to retire, it perpetuates a narrative that a person’s value diminishes with every year they age; and should someone choose to continue on with their career, they will most certainly be made to feel that perceived loss of value. That emotional burden takes a serious toll.
That overwhelming feeling — I’m not done — is the reason I wrote my book. I don’t want to shuffle offstage and start my “second career.” I don’t want to write another book validating the view that a person’s value as a professional only extends to a certain arbitrary age by suggesting that they plan for their “second act.”
No one should ever have to feel sidelined or undervalued. I think there’s a better way. In fact, I know there is. And it starts with having an open discussion about ageism.
For more advice on handling age discrimination, you can find I’m Not Done on Amazon.
Over the course of an impressive four-decade career, Patti Temple Rocks has held senior leadership positions in three different sectors of the communications industry: PR, advertising, and on the corporate client side. She is an inspirational leader, innovative thinker, problem-solver, growth driver, brand steward, and agent of change. Patti is passionate about fighting age discrimination and helping people understand how it harms individuals, businesses, and society as a whole. To learn more about this issue and get in touch with Patti, visit her website, http://imnotdone.rocks.